Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal (Faber)

 There is an old story, retold in the pages of this densely thicketed, combative, revisionist biography, of two English explorers who met by chance on a narrow walking path in Palestine. Each was alone; neither had encountered another human being in weeks. As they drew abreast, the two men doffed their hats and inclined their heads in the slightest of nods, and wordlessly continued on their separate ways.

Absurdity? Yes, but something else, besides. For Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh workhouse boy who became the most famous of Victorian explorers, the story wasn’t absurd at all. It demonstrated what he most admired in the class to which he could never aspire: British restraint; civility; gentlemanliness. His admiration for these qualities is behind his most famous interrogative, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

This question addressed by a Welshman to a Scot in the African jungle was, even in Stanley’s time, derided as quaint, ridiculous. But as biographer Tim Jeal convincingly shows, it was a question Stanley never asked. The page of Stanley’s diary that coincides with the date of that famous meeting was ripped out: the written records that survive came later, in newspaper articles and eventually books. Livingstone himself, who also recorded the meeting, made no mention (as he surely would have) of Stanley’s question. It makes a good story, though not in the way Stanley intended, and like so much else we think we know about him, it is simply untrue. The only possible explanation for the missing diary page is that it contradicted Stanley’s later accounts: Stanley was, not for the first time, improving his history.

The lies begin with his name, which was not Henry Morton Stanley at all, but John Rowlands. Illegitimate and abandoned by his mother, he spent his childhood partly in the care of indifferent relatives, and mostly in a workhouse in Denbigh, Wales. The stigma of illegitimacy in Victorian Britain cannot be overestimated, and Stanley sought to conceal his origins for the rest of his life; he tried, unsuccessfully, to shed his inconvenient relatives (who discovered a familial bond when he became famous and well-off), and to invent new ones that fulfilled his ideal of what family should be. His records of his epic journeys are full of bombast and falsifications, exaggerating, for example, the numbers of fatalities inflicted in clashes with hostile tribes in the African Congo. Stanley was a working journalist, and a good one; but if embroidering the truth made for better copy for his newspaper proprietor, then he didn’t hesitate.

The pity of it is that the truth, or as much of it as his biographer is able to uncover, is more extraordinary than anything Stanley invented. Stanley was one of those amazing Victorians who crammed a dozen lifetimes’ adventures into one; who by anybody’s reckoning should have died at the battle of Shiloh; by summary execution at the hands of Turkish bandits; from malaria; by spear, arrow, or bullet; as the main ingredient in a cannibal feast. He miraculously escaped all these fates to die, prematurely old and half-forgotten, in London at the age of sixty-three – already an anachronism, a victim of the reputation he himself did so much to create.

Previous biographies have focused on Stanley’s reputation for brutality in the Congo, particularly in the service of the thoroughly repugnant, rapacious King Leopold of Belgium. Stanley is usually contrasted with the saintly missionary, Livingstone. Jeal shows that Livingstone’s good reputation owes much to Stanley’s admiring account of him, and little to the facts. (Jeal is also the author of an authoritative biography of Livingstone.) A surprising statistic: in all Livingstone’s time in Africa, he converted only one man to Christianity, who subsequently lapsed. Livingstone and other explorers are shown to be at least as ruthless as Stanley – they had to be, if they were to survive – but they had the sense to suppress this aspect of their journeys. Stanley, in the interests of his readers back home, exaggerated it. In fact he was more compassionate than many of his contemporaries in Africa, and was shocked at the cruelty displayed by Egyptian slave-traders, colonizers and members of his own expeditions (cruelty that Conrad would memorably portray in Heart Of Darkness). When news of atrocities in the Congo began to circulate in Europe and America, Stanley’s exaggerated accounts of his exploits would rebound on him. He was snubbed by the upper classes, and also by the Royal Geographical Society (for the effrontery of having found Livingstone, where their own better-funded expeditions had failed).

Henry Morton Stanley emerges from this book as neither villain nor saint, but as an extraordinarily courageous, energetic, determined man. The folly and human tragedy of European exploration and colonization of Africa were on an enormous scale, and Stanley’s biographer does not flinch from this. Stanley was one of the last manifestations of an Empire that even then was losing faith in its own imperialist ideals. But he was also a human being, as absurd as those two travellers who met long ago on a remote pass, and as admirable.

Christchurch Press

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